Freedom of press : An essential part of freedom of speech & expression

Yangsorang Rongreisek
The land where we live is not Myanmar or North Korea but India—that is upholding democratic principles and values for the well-being and growth of the people of the land. And it is all because of the free press running in the country that any freelancers can write independently but with some restrictions, i.e. without being unlawful and blasphemous in the writing. How happy this writer also felt when his article which he named “The Tribal Economy of Manipur: An Insight” surfaced in the Manipur Mail way back in 1981! Frankly, he had never claimed to be an economist when he hardly knew Economics. Out of sheer enthusiasm with a great concern, he wrote the article as the tribal economy of Manipur was shockingly poor due to lack of road connectivity nearly forty years ago. A peculiar situation cropped up when one teacher of a higher secondary school strongly contested his writing. The teacher countered awkwardly saying whether he had undertaken any research on the soil of Manipur hills as he mentioned in the article that the soil of the said hills was rich and did not have the disadvantages of Jhum fields at high altitudes. This writer told him that it was a write-up supported by sufficient materials available with him. That was just the campus beats for the golden era in the early 1980s.
Moreover, there is also no effort of the state govt of Manipur currently underway to construct or improve roads to connect villages situated at the foot-hills with the state capital where men cannot see far with mountains all around. In the recent past, the print and electronic media of Manipur have brought out the reality of the present horrible road condition of Churachandpur town to Henglep in Churachandpur district. For decades, very poor infrastructure and limited connectivity have acted as roadblocks hindering the socio-economic development of hill areas of Manipur. In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, the Union Ministry of Road and Transport is planning to expedite the Trans-Arunachal Highway Project. The Ministry will be driving the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme of Roads and Highways covering 2,319 kilometres and the North-East Council (NEC) also has set its focus on building roads spanning 10,500 kilometres which will include inter-state and roads of economic importance.
With the growth of English Dailies in the state from 1996 onward, any person of any background wrote on any topics. Articles by some writers were accommodated for publication in the dailies and some weren’t in its initial stages. Admirably, the advantage in today’s trend is that the writers are getting enough of what they intend to convey to the responsible citizens through the prism of a vibrant free press in Manipur. The writers of different essays clearly know the freedom of press is not absolute just as the freedom of expression is not. They write on and on knowing fully well that public interest has to be safeguarded by Article 19(1) (A) of the Indian Constitution which lays down reasonable limitations to the freedom of expression in matters affecting sovereignty & integrity of state, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency & morality, contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence.        
The fact is that freedom of press is not specifically mentioned in Article 19(1) (A) of the Constitution of India and what is mentioned there is only freedom of speech and expression. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, it was made clear by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar,
Chairman of the Drafting Committee that no special mention of the freedom of press was necessary at all as the press and an individual or a citizen was the same as far as their right of expression was concerned. The framers of the Indian Constitution considered freedom of the press as an essential part of the freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed in Article 19(1) (A) of the constitution. To preserve the democratic way of life, it is essential that people should have the freedom to express their feelings to make their views known to the people at large. The press, a powerful media of mass communication should be free to play its role in building a strong viable society. Denial of the freedom of press to citizens would necessarily undermine the power to influence public opinion. Besides the restrictions imposed on the press by the constitution, there exist various other laws which further curtail press freedom and the right of the citizens to information as well as the right to freedom of speech and expression. They are all in force in the interest of public order of the sovereignty and security of the state. The origin of the concept of freedom of press took place in England. From the earliest times in the west, persecution for the expression of opinion even in matter relating to science and philosophy was restored to by both the church and the state, to suppress alleged hearsay, corruption of the youth or sedition. Such restraints, though licensing and censorship, came to be accentuated after the appearance of newspaper in the 17th Century which demonstrated how powerful the press was as a medium of expression.
 Shortly afterwards, newspapers came to take up the cause of the opposition against monarchical absolutism, which in turn, led to different method of suppression. It was in protest against such governmental interference that freedom of the press was built up in England. Opposition to governmental interference, which had been brewing up for some time, was supported by the logical argument by Milton in his Areopagitica(1644), for instance, that free men must have the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience above all liberties. Any of censorship was intolerable whether imposed by a royal decree or by legislation. In fact, Milton’s Areopagitica was a protest addressed to the Long Parliament which had taken up licensing, after the abolition of the Star Chamber. It was as a result of such agitation that the Licensing Act of 1662 was eventually refused to be renewed by the House of Commons in 1694. The history of the press in England was thus a triumph of the people against the power of the licensor. Since there was no written constitution or any guarantee of fundamental rights in England, the concept of freedom of the press like the wider concept of freedom of expression had been basically negative. In other words, freedom of press in England meant the right to print and publish anything which was not prohibited by law or made an offence- such as sedition, contempt of court, obscenity, defamation and blasphemy.
In India before independence, there was no constitutional or statutory guarantee of freedom of an individual or media/press. At most, some common law freedom could be claimed by the press. There were many instances when the freedom of press had been suppressed by the legislature. In Sakal Papers vs Union of India, the daily newspapers (Price& Page) Order, 1960 which fixed the number of pages and size which a newspaper could publish at a price was held to be violative of freedom of press and not a reasonable restriction under the Article 19(2). The freedom of a journalist is an ordinary part of the freedom of the subject and to whatever length, the subject in general may go. The Preamble of the Indian Constitution ensures to all citizens inter alia liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. Mrs. Gandhi never had much faith in the press. Her misgivings about the press were first expressed in her address to the International Press Institute Assembly in New Delhi on November 15, 1966 when she blamed the press for giving wide publicity to student unrest in the country. She said “How much liberty should the press have in country like India which is engaged in fighting a war against poverty, backwardness, superstition and ignorance”. She would not suggest restrictions that might be imposed on the press but said it was for the leading editions and journalists of the country to decide. Nine years later in 1975, she declared emergency by taking action against the press immediately and complete censorship was imposed on media houses in the country.  For achieving the main objects of Freedom of Speech and Expression, freedom of the press has been included as part of freedom of speech and expression which is universally recognised right adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization on 10th December, 1948. Concepts of the appropriate role for journalism vary between countries. In some nations, the news media are controlled by government intervention and are not fully independent.  In some countries, the news media are independent of the govt but instead operate as private industry motivated by profits. Myanmar has undergone strict censorship and regulation since 1962 Burma Coup D’état. The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press; however, the govt prohibits the exercise of these rights in practice. There have been moves to lift censorship in that country. Burma announced on 20 August, 2012 that it will stop censoring media before publication but journalists could still face consequences for what they write and say. North Korea allows only limited access to independent news sources and almost no access to the Internet. The vast majority of news and information comes from the official Korean Central News Agency which reports mainly on statements from the political leadership. This leaves citizens with only one filtered point of view when the more news and information is available to the public in the freer the society like the United States of America and India where citizens tend to be well-informed on issues affecting their communities, govt and everyday dealings.  In addition to the varying nature of how media organizations are run and funded, countries have differing implementations of laws handling the freedom of speech and libel cases (the act of printing a statement about somebody that is not true).   More recently, the entire journalism business model has been turned upside down by the rise of the internet and even more recently, social media. Suddenly anyone can be a news publisher, regardless of their expertise, sense of fairness or motives. Fake news from individual or state actors can spread like wildfire through Facebook, Twitter and other similar outlets. Whether it is a boon or bane for mankind, the advent of the internet and smartphones has brought significant changes to the media landscape in recent years.
The writer can be reached at Yangsorang [email protected]